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Internal Communications Application

Brief

For a graduate research project, my group was required to work with a company in an exploratory effort to identify problems areas that could benefit from technology and how that idea could be implemented. We followed the d-school design process to guide the initiative over the course of ten weeks.

Problem

The identified problem area was internal communication systems (or lack thereof) within rapidly-changing full service restaurants and retail stores.

Internal communications in practically every organization has been shown to help business goals and empower the staff. Noteworthy changes occur in a workplace such as a restaurant that need to be communicated efficiently to a large, fleeting, and often off-site team of employees. Because companies such as these and retail stores can't practically use email communication, current techniques for navigating these challenges have shown to be ineffective.

Exploratory research practices were carried out with a participatory full service restaurant of about 80 employees in Chicago over the course of 10 weeks to shed some light on some of these problems. The goal was the conceptualization of a solution to aid with the duties of the restaurant staff.

Research

Four guiding research questions were established to focus the investigative parameters and to keep the design process moving forward.

  1. 1. How informed are employees of company affairs that impact their job?
  2. 2. What blind spots exist with internal communication efforts?
  3. 3. What channels of internal communication are most beneficial to users?

Research Methodology

In order to answer some of these questions, we conducted research onsite in the restaurant.

Employee Questionnaires —
26 responses were received from a questionnaire that was distributed to front of house employees. These provided us both quantitative feedback in the form of likert-scale feedback about how much these employees value communications, what they think of their current system, what tools they prefer to use, etc. We also got qualitative feedback from these questionnaires in the form of some open ended questions, asking for comments and suggestions to improve these systems and what the current concerns are from an employee perspective.

Interview, General Manager —
I interviewed the lead manager of the restaurant to get a bird's eye view of current practices. Qualitative feedback was intended to detail current systems in use, explain how and what communcations are transmitted, and what the response from employees seems to be using these systems. The perspective of the management team was critical for the success of any proposed solution to work, because they control most of the messaging.

Interview, Kitchen Manager —
I also interviewed the kitchen manager to answer some questions about the kitchen staff, who don't use the same scheduling software as the front-of-house staff, which could cause communication issues.

Research Insights

Questionnaire responses from employees showed that they are only moderately informed on policies, menu changes, etc. but value this information and wishes management could communicate it better. Most employees preferred communicating about news via in-person team huddles which happen every weekday before the evening shift, as opposed to through the scheduling software the front-of-house and management team uses regularly. The scheduling software used, HotSchedules, provides limited channels to communcate work-related news, though attempts are made by our observed restaurant.

Management has difficulties keeping everyone informed, partially from lack of viable tools and juggling multiple communication channels. We grouped common types of feedback from our general manager interview into an affinity diagram. Credit to Su for constructing this diagram and helping to organize the general manager's thoughts.

affinty diagram

The interview with the kitchen manager showed the challenge in including this specific set of users into a unified system. We discovered they are less-technologically savvy, many not having access to a smartphone. Other than digital isolation, physical isolation is another concern. While the kitchen staff do clock in using a P.O.S. terminal like the front-of-house staff, this is about the only common ground shared by all users. However, the P.O.S. terminal was considered a potential channel for work communications that could be tied to an application, including all users into news.

With some insights in hand, we produced an initial task model to help organize some necessary functions for our users. Credit to Chris for the model and starting us down the task paths.

Design

Persona Development

Because most communications start with management, if the solution cannot satisfy this group of users, then internal communications are effectively terminated throughout the entire system. This was considered our primary user group.

Kelly Murphy
“I’m constantly texting.”
36
Management User
Comfortable with technology. Up-to-date with current applications that restaurants use. Has experience with other systems.

Conceptual Sketches

Early formations of a design solution for our intended users shown above addresses some of the concerns that were discovered in our research. Credit to Su for this initial sketch.

Wireframing

Optimal functionality for management to communicate rapid and diverse messaging to the team is further explored. Employees would also have the same system, but less access to functions that would be management only, such as menu changes or approving scheduling requests. The home screen would be a feed that would display new and important messaging. This feed is personal and community-oriented, meaning that you would see all communications that the rest of the team would see, but there would also be space in the feed for private messages or personal notes that are relevant to you. Primary content areas are on the bottom bar, along with a primary execution button to communicate.

High-Fidelity Protoype

Our detailed design and also our most up-to-date iteration. Color is meant to categorize types of information so people can quickly identify what they are looking at. Color is also meant to increase enjoyability so that using the app isn't as boring.

Testing

Heuristic Evaluation

We did a heuristic evaluation using Nielsen's 10 guidelines for interface design on the prototype internally to spot any glaring issues before a usability test with a user would be conducted. Through this evaluation, we used five tasks to explore the system. The tasks were:

After two separate tests internally, the results were compared. We found 14 usability problems:

Usability Testing

Once these issues were resolved, the high-fidelity prototype was tested through a single usability test with a management user from the observed restaurant. The task list was updated to provide some new insights and to help our user with context:

The usability test for this task sequence was completed by the user, including each individual task. Tasks were executed onsite and details of time spent and other comments were recorded. Most tasks were comprehended and executed quickly, with number 3 being longer than others because of careful attention placed into messaging related to the task, which wasn't viewed as a usability issue. The user also completed a post-test questionnaire which provided some qualitative and quantitative feedback regarding system ease of use, satisfaction, usefulness, etc. Overall, the user responded positively to the proposed system and really enjoyed the concept of having all tasks related to communication and scheduling that managers would utizile on a daily basis being in one platform.

Conclusion

10 weeks certainly had its limitations on scope of the project, but more research is certainly recommended in providing an ideal solution for these various users. Some ideas for further improvement include:

In conclusion, no tool really exists that can bridge some of these gaps in communication. The real key takeaway from this project is that all user groups want and value communication to feel better about their work and be empowered in their jobs. There seems to be a way that technology can help alleviate some of these issues with a multi-channeled system that is easy to learn and use. If the process is not made easy, then management or employees won’t find the solution useful and will continue to juggle multiple technologies that, while helpful, make it difficult to unite and inform teams in a rapidly-changing world.

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